The search for miraculous potions did not end with medieval kabalists. Those who impatiently crave compassionate social change and agonize in frustration when our efforts bare bitter fruit are forever being consoled and criticized by those who, for some special reason, believe we live in the best of all possible worlds and that every way and every day things are automatically getting better and better.
In the '90's, the transformative buzz word is cyberspace. Interactive Informational super-highways that stretch through the far corners of the virtual globe are supposedly breaking down authoritarian barriers and a world web of collective consciousness is emerging because of the ensuing death of distance and separation. The "wired" optimists tell us not to be concerned about fascist militias in America or slave labor in the South Seas, just sit back, surf the Web, and let electricity solve the planet's problems.
Back in the '60's, LSD was the good vibes panacea of choice, better living through chemistry was the promised outcome and the late Tim Leary was its most famous and potent prophet.
My first recollection of Tim Leary goes back to the Summer of 1968. I was in one of those beyond the "outer limit" gatherings that my good pal Jerry Rubin would regularly drag me to for reasons of benevolence and rascality.
This get-to-gether was featuring a mano a mano confrontation between Tim Leary and a mysterious cult from England known only as the "Process." I knew nothing of that group but that its members all wore tight black clothing, that they frowned a lot, were recruiting American hippies in New York's east village, and that they liked to give off vague airs of disciplined Satanism. The "Process" had announced their intention of either recruiting Leary or burying his reputation in the dustbin of hippie history.
Of the Process I knew little but Leary was a different matter. He was by 1968 a notoriously dismissed rebel psychology professor from Harvard who had made headlines by experimenting with LSD in the company of his students. Several years before his being fired I read a Leary interview in Playboy Magazine and took a swig of the magic potion. That journey took place in Brooklyn and I wound up, one Summer evening, strolling barefooted on Nostrand Avenue which I first hallucinated into a lavish Moorish Palace and then again as an enormous cemetery for the almost dead. I retreated to my basement on East 29th Street and definitively decided to leave Brooklyn.
Tim rose to the Process challenge. He showed up attired in a balloon sleeved India kind of white pullover and tight white pants. With his infectiously broad smile and benevolent vibrations Leary seemed like psychedelia's "yetzer tov" (good inclination) in direct confrontation with the "other side"forces of darkness. He embodied goodness, generosity and hope. And darkness was overwhelmed by his light and was reduced to mumbling curses and beating a hasty retreat.
And yet there was something transparent about Leary's performance that spoke of the confidence man. As he smiled great goodness he seemed to be winking at some off stage confederate (me - I imagined) who was in on his puzzling scam. Not that Timothy Leary didn't really believe in and consume his product, but that it seemed, he joyously and knowingly exaggerated its virtues in order to entertain and persuade. Afterwards, when Jerry introduced me to the founder of the LSD faith, I could only say, "Tim you are a rogue and its an honor to meet you." Realizing that this world famous spokesperson for the "Age of Aquarius" and cosmically expanded consciousness was in some part a long haired P.T. Barnum meant that he was much more interesting than I had possibly imagined.
Those were Tim Leary's best years. He could sneeze and make headlines. He was truly idolized by both the most down and out "got any spare change" hippies and members of ruling class families who were far from giving away their possessions and joining a dessert commune - even one with color tv and air-conditioning. Leary's message and charm were classless. And that might account for his being able to drop acid with relatives of JP Morgan and friends of Abbie Hoffman and why he could be found in hippie crash pads and great mansions.
Leary preached salvation through the acid elixir. He peddled LSD as a chemically synthesized fountain of youth, as satori, the ten sefirot, and an infinite orgasm wrapped up in an easy to swallow tablet. Just take one pill in the company of a kindly guide and in comfortable surroundings and forget about phone calls for the next 24 hours. With acid every day could be Shabatt.
There seemed no problem that LSD could not solve. All difficulties were illusions that society programed us to believe were real. Acid with the meta-deprogramer. "Dropping out" meant letting go of the painful life long messages that told us we were delinquent, lazy and incompetent and we deserved all the bad things that were happening to us. Through acid we could discover a place in our soul where everything was perfect and where our only task was being hedonistically happy.
When asked about the problems of racism, war and exploitation, Leary would say that these were only "hang-ups" that would go away when everyone was "turning on, tuning in and dropping out." Leary's campaign for instant wisdom fell on willing American ears. This was the nation of instant everything, a little powder in water could become soup, coffee or that place of enlightenment for which some search their whole time and never achieve. Instant holiness, perfect unity of flesh and spirit and great wisdom were just a sip away.
My first trip didn't bring me into any great celestial space, but it didn't put me in the "nut house" like most of my friends predicted. And it did help me realize that my life's journey pointed me in a direction rather different than a world bordered by Coney Island and Prospect Park.
Leary both charmed and frustrated us Yippies who wanted to blend a soulful socialist political revolution with the alluring sounds, colors and styles of the cultural revolution that was exploding out of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and bringing about dramatic changes in the appearance and ambitions of America's youth. In his salad days of popularity Tim's message was decidedly anti-political. He was against confronting the power elites because that only produced anger and bad vibes. And besides LSD contained "information" that would re-program the mind and transform even the greediest capitalist into a center of benevolent energy. Recall please, the transition of Ebineezer Scrooge after a night of vivid hallucination. It was Leary's mission to "turn on" both the world's Ebineezer's and its Bob Cratchit's alike.
Leary did endorse the Yippie's plans to hold a Festival of Life in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention but only because its promoters promised it would be a non-violent attempt to demonstrate a positive, peaceful alternative lifestyle. When great violence occurred and Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, along with six others were indicted, Leary testified at their federal show trial as to their prior peaceful intentions He was a surprisingly effective witness striking a handsome and sincere professorial pose. Even a Federal Marshall stated afterward he thought "Leary did you guys some good."
When Jerry and I congratulated Tim on his testimony he explained with great care the way in which he tailored his statements to what he perceived to be the liberal views of some of the jurors. When he mentioned Jerry's commitment to non-violence I once again had the feeling he was roguishly winking at someone in his private audience. Sure Jerry is non-violent, the sub-text of his body language was declaring, and I might just be the reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse.
A few months after the trial Tim was himself in big trouble, he was facing serious prison time on drug possession charges and his legal appeals were running out. In public Tim just seemed to get happier. He declared his intention to run in the California gubernatorial race under the slogan "Love for Guv." The former apolitician believed he could improve his image and perhaps positively influence a few judges by running a constructive campaign.
But Leary's purist followers were too stoned to canvass for signatures and his Yippie friends had grown suspicious of electoral politics. One day Tim Leary showed up, still beaming, for a court appearance. His appeals had run their course, but his lawyer was going to make some new motions. Leary was so sure he wasn't going to prison that he ignored suggestions that he bring a toothbrush with him to the court hearing. A mistake he much regretted the next day when he woke up in a prison cell.
Leary climbed over the prison wall, after spending less than a year in the California Prison system he escaped, the news was all over the radio and the hippie streets of the east village and the world. And then an even more startling message was broadcast, Tim Leary escaped with the assistance of the terroristic and Leninist Weather Underground. From somewhere in the American demimonde Tim issued a public communique declaring that he was turning on with the Weather leaders and that he should be considered "armed and dangerous." Leary's "good vibes" followers and friends didn't quite know what to feel, happy - because Tim was out of prison, or terrified because maybe, with CIA connivance, he had been kidnapped by Bolsheviks on acid.
When he arrived at Eldridge Cleaver's villa which was just outside of Algiers, Leary was warmly greeted by the exiled Panther leader and told that "there's a friend of yours waiting inside." It was me, at the urging of Jerry and Abbie, I flew to Algeria to prepare the way for Tim's North African exile. Cleaver, himself running from the law, had obtained both sanctuary and a degree of diplomatic recognition from the Algerian government. He could use his influence on Leary's behalf and along with a number of armed cohorts grant Leary a degree of protection.
When I arrived in Algeria, Eldridge was suspicious. He liked Tim and admired the all-American initiative he had shown in breaking out of prison. But Tim Leary in Moslem Algeria wasn't exactly a PR coup for the Black Panther Party. On balance the Panther felt a responsibility for Tim and besides Cleaver was bored in exile. His life had developed a bureaucratic aspect, typical of diplomats and he was completely surrounded by an Algerian culture of puratanic revolutionary zeal and private corruption. Leary in Algeria meant headlines, controversy and a taste of the madcap unpredictability Cleaver formerly enjoyed as the city of San Francisco's leading revolutionary persona.
But Leary's escape, heroic and worthy of Hollywood as it was, non-the-less represented a damaging turn. In Algeria Tim was bereft of magic. In a country which regarded hashish as a tool of colonialism, and offered him asylum under the misunderstanding that he was Black, Leary couldn't even hint at a belief that LSD could positively alter the genetic code in favor of benevolent behavior. Even in private conversation, and in despair, the former good vibes guru took a different and cynical tact. "I should be popular in the third world. I did more than anyone else in history to destroy the minds of a lot white middle class kids. I think that ought to count for something." And the pacifist's relationship with Eldridge Cleaver started on its terrible collision course when the Black Panther leader refused to give him a pistol as a present on his 50th birthday. Tim's hustle had run its wild course. Even his wealthy acid headed friends back in the states could do nothing for him, all their quick and easy fixer connections had proved to be useless. And no amount of smuggled-in LSD could have hallucinated his jail bars out of existence.
Leary's Algerian sojourn ended in a Cleaver shakedown. Eldridge "jailed" Tim and his wife Rosemary, and the situation was touchy becausethe rich American crowd was growing a bit tired of paying Leary's expenses. But the money was raised and soon after that Leary left Algeria on a journey that would take him to first to Europe and then Afganastan, where he would be kidnapped by American drug agents and brought back to a California Prison.
He didn't remain behind bars for very long. But this time his escape was via the rout of co-operation with the authorities, naming names and being a model prisoner. Much controversy exists over just what Leary told the Feds, and he has his defenders who point out that nobody seemed to be hurt by his gabbing, but things were never the same. Leary's friendship circle was greatly reduced and he became considerably more cautious in his public behavior.
For Leary and all of us, Acid proved not to be a magic elixir. Some may have have experienced utopian and magnificent visions of human and divine possibility, while under the influence. But again and again we came down to the real world of confusing limitations and however much we clung to our visions, it became increasingly apparent that if reality was ever going to yield to transform to our compassionate ideals, it would take place slowly and only after much hard thinking and practical political work.
And yet something must still be be said for utopia, acid induced and otherwise. Without its inspiration why would any of us bother in the first place? It is appropriate that Timothy Leary made something of a comeback in the '80's and 90's by touting the revolutionary power of cyberspace and marketing psychedelic software - going from hallucinations to virtual realities required no great leap of faith. I visited Tim some time before prostate cancer claimed his life. He was obviously ill, but his mind was keen for memories, particularly those that involved good times and great excitement. And then he started talking about the wonders of cyberspace and I could see that his powers of persuasion hadn't dimmed and that his eyes still beamed with roguish irony. It was for me a reassuring experience.
There is in the end , something good to say about Timothy Leary. It is true that LSD encounters, and all other drug induced simplifications and shortcuts, ultimately hit an unyielding wall. The trips turn bad or become boringly repetitive. And yet, for me, the original memories of the boundless hope and fantastic sense of possibility drawn from my earliest psychedelic encounters remain. I know from firsthand, chemically induced experiences that another and more beautiful world of extraordinary vision exists beyond the limits and certitudes of ordinary social reality,
Timothy Leary should not have mixed his message with hokum. The hustle was bound to lead many to disillusionment and a sense of personal failure and powerlessness. Yet there are others, myself included who benefited from momentarily falling for the Leary sales pitch. We eventually stopped taking acid, but kept our eye on that other and better world.